Invention ain’t all rainbows and unicorns. Entrepreneur and consultant, Angele Sjong, PhD experiences a metaphysical headache when she sets about inventing. She loves it, but repeatedly confronting the supposedly impossible ignites conflict between both sides of the brain. Invention for her is an intellectual street fight involving hand-to-hand combat with a problem as she attempts to rip out a solution.
“Invention isn’t pretty,” said Dr. Sjong, who got her PhD in chemistry from Yale. “Invention involves head-banging, head-butting, clawing, bulldozing and inhaling information. I might imagine solutions, then recoil from these outlandish ideas that offend my engineering sensibilities. Two days later I may do it a different way, and solve what wasn’t previously workable. That may become the invention. Far more often though, I biff it. Invention involves a lot of face-plants.”
Still, she excels at it. With over 50 U.S. patents and patent applications to her credit, one would think Dr. Sjong took to inventing as though to a mystical calling. The opposite is true. She’d been approached about doing invention work by Xinova for some time, but it took a lull in her consulting work to muscle past her dislike of the patent world and the very word, “Inventor” (she prefers, “Innovator”) to give it a shot.
“Many who are inventors would emphasize elegant approaches and aspirational tendencies. I’m more of an ant eater that claws its way at a log or anthill, sticks its long snout deep inside, slurps up thousands of ants and spits out a few solutions. I claw at subjects like an ant eater. I try not to destroy the anthill but I don’t get to what I need until after really tearing into it.”
“Still,” she does admit, “when invention works, it really is beautiful.”
She had success early on with her anteater approach, and continues to be successful in numerous roles with Xinova. Dr. Sjong wrote the non-binding food ingredient RFI, widely credited as one of the best ever written for Xinova. Part of why it was so good was that she zeroed in on a clear problem that had wide ramifications across multiple industries, beyond just food.
“I work across a lot of industries so the same skills that I brought to consulting I brought to inventing,” she said, noting that she consults in fields from materials science to chemistry, for startups and for Fortune 500 companies. “I think what I realized was I defined inventing in a different way that fit my skills. I’m a researcher at heart. I love to read and ask questions.”
And that’s how she approaches problems: as a researcher and a consultant. But inventing provides freedom from strict consultancy deadlines to obsessively pursue ideas. That was a game-changer. With time to read and ask questions and get acquainted with new material, and to dive down rabbit holes, she could let the creative process percolate… and then filter the ideas through her consulting expertise.
“I strongly believe there are two parts to invention,” said Dr. Sjong. “Inventors need to know how to play with ideas and with concepts–they need to be comfortable playing with hypotheticals. That’s part one. But part two is taking off your inventing goggles. That’s when you have to be quite critical of your ideas and remember to never fall in love with your ideas too much. Loving your ideas too much is the bane of invention. You’ve got to kill some ideas off and focus on the ones with the most potential.”
Scaling walls… of innovation
Technical climbing is a passion of Dr. Sjong’s. She and her husband, a professional climber, spent their honeymoon scaling El Capitain in Yosemite National Park and have climbed around the world over the last two decades. She is drawn to how each cliff presents a clear problem whose solution demands unambiguous results: do it or fall. Approaches vary between climber to climber, from modern to traditional, as do their skills and risk tolerance.
It’s not entirely unlike invention. She notes how leading brainstorming sessions and consulting projects can be like roping in with a climber. Everyone brings different tools and skill levels, and their approaches might be defined by their risk tolerance. Inventors and companies must ask, will they commit to developing one solution or experiment with 20?
“You have to be a bit of a pipe dreamer to be an inventor, but you also need to be skilled and disciplined enough to get the job done. Each person is unique with the skills they bring to invention. Each person gets to do it their own way and I respect that.”
It’s always been hard for her to sit still. In her PhD program, she noticed that she was significantly more active than her peers. She is often standing or walking while working and running or climbing for fun. One of the things she likes about inventing is that after reading a dozen articles she can then go for a run or hike while the random information collides around in her head.
That energy has led her to her current entrepreneurial endeavor. Dr. Sjong is founding a company for innovation, along with concept development. Her vision is to unite her industrial consulting and project management background with innovation. The name of her company? “I think I’ll call it, ‘Pangolin Innovation.’ Pangolins are anteaters that are very unique; they look like reptiles but they are mammals, the only ones to have scales, which protect them from predators. What a great invention!”
You have to be a bit of a pipe dreamer to be an inventor, but you also need to be skilled and disciplined enough to get the job done. Each person is unique with the skills they bring to invention. Each person gets to do it their own way and I respect that.”
-Dr. Angele Sjong
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